Small Numbers

The Washington Post notes that the US Postal Service is helping the government spy on your mail.
Postal inspectors say they fulfill such requests only when mail monitoring can help find a fugitive or investigate a crime. But a decade’s worth of records, provided exclusively to The Washington Post in response to a congressional probe, show Postal Service officials have received more than 60,000 requests from federal agents and police officers since 2015, and that they rarely say no.

Each request can cover days or weeks of mail sent to or from a person or address, and 97 percent of the requests were approved, according to the data. Postal inspectors recorded more than 312,000 letters and packages between 2015 and 2023, the records show.

I yield to none in my disapproval of government spying on its own citizens. Nevertheless, these figures are shocking mostly because they're tiny. There are 335,000,000 Americans, more or less.  They found 60,000 requests over 8 years. Check my math, but I make that approximately 0.00223%. 

All things considered, that's remarkably restrained given that the Postal Service basically never turns them down when they ask. Of course, it could be that they don't often bother to ask because people don't often plan crimes by mail (though perhaps any prospective criminals among you should, given their relative inattention!). 

On the other hand, your mail would be a reliable indicator if you were "in the military, or religious." Apparently that's a matter of concern these days.


E Hines said...

A better statistic is the amount of first class mail sent through the post office from 2015 through 2023.

According to the post office, the amount of first class mail ranged (rounded to the nearest million) from 65,754 in 2015 down to a low of 45,979 in 2023. (Aside: the downtrend's steadiness seems to have been undisturbed by the Wuhan Virus Situation.) That works out to a total of 567,019 million pieces. The 60,000 requests works out to an even smaller sliver of the mail being snooped on.

That may only amount to a camel's nose hair in the tent, but it's still troubling. names, addresses and other details from the outside of boxes and envelopes are the same metadata that's publicly available in email headers, cell phone packet transmissions, and so on that already is in bad odor with us average Americans, if not with politicians who Know Better.

Eric Hines

E Hines said...

One more thing: the inspectors said they share only what they can see on the outside of the mail; the Fourth Amendment requires them to get a warrant to peek inside.

I use the post office's Informed Mail (or something like that name) program to receive advance notice of mail items coming in today's mail (followed fairly promptly by notice of actual delivery). That program includes imagery of the envelopes and cards that are coming.

Critically, the envelopes often are thin enough that it's possible to see much of what's inside the envelope, as the print bleeds through in the imaging process. Fourth Amendment be damned.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

Well, it seems like any savvy criminal would use privacy envelopes, no return address, and no identifying marks, and that takes care of that if it's just one of these requests.

I think this is the least of our worries in the coming dystopia. It's the technology- even the cash registers are now taking your facial recognition data every time you make a purchase. What the government, and even, or more chillingly the big tech corps can glean about you when they out AI to profiling you based on all the data they will collect on you from open sources is frightening.

Donna B. said...

I don't trust the US Mail, but it's the delivery I don't trust, not the possible tracking or spying. Honestly, when they conquer the delivery problems, I might consider they can conquer the more sinister aspects.